Advertising Interviews

Jishnu Sen

COO | 20 Nov 2009

We are one of the top five agencies in the country. You may say that our creative products have slipped over the couple of years; maybe or maybe not. But in the Asia Pacific context, Grey India is the key driver in both its top line and bottom line numbers. And India is the jewel in the Asia Pacific crown.

Jishnu Sen is currently Chief Operating Officer at Grey India. He joined Grey as Mumbai Branch Head. Sen has more than two decades of experience in the advertising industry. Before he joined Grey, he was Regional Client Servicing Director on the Colgate Palmolive business with Y&R New York. He has held several positions in JWT and Rediffusion Y&R in India, Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. Sen has also worked on a host of brands such as Colgate, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, ESPN, STAR Sports and the Indian Army.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Tasneem Limbdiwala, Sen speaks at length about Grey India’s growth plans.

Q. It has now been almost three years for you at Grey India. How has the journey been so far?

It’s been great. Honestly, the last two years were literally like a honeymoon period. The first year, when I came back from the US and joined Grey as Mumbai Branch Head, the Mumbai office seemed to be in a good shape as we doubled ourselves in a span of one year. We reduced attrition, which, for me, was a big personal point of pride and pleasure, because I hate losing people as I get attached to my team. And so, my objective has been to make the agency a place to come to, work in and have fun. So, the first year was great, however, the second year was a bit tight, but had the momentum was maintained. However, I have made it very clear that Grey will demonstrate integration truly. Taking this forward, we integrated our event activation agency under one roof. In the third year, I was then appointed the COO. The year 2009, I guess, could be the worst year to become a chief of anything. But I must confess, Nirvik (Singh, CEO) has been great to me and has allowed me to have a free run in anything that I do. So Mumbai continues to do well and the agency will end up having a decent year.

Q. Personally, were you expecting to be heading the agency in this fashion, as the COO? How prepared were you for this?

I don’t think anybody can be that prepared. It’s a learning curve. As for the role coming forward, we were discussing it for a bit, but at this level, nobody promises or expects a promise. Nirvik becoming the head of Asia Pacific for Grey naturally meant that India needed a successor, and I was grateful that Nirvik gave me the honour to be the COO of Grey India.

In that ways life has changed very dramatically. I don’t spend enough time in Mumbai as much as I would love to. However, it is an eye opener to know how a Chennai market is completely different from a Mumbai or a Delhi market. It’s like how one approaches a small brand to a large brand.

Q. Please brief us more on this view of yours in respect to geographies.

In terms of markets, I don’t think Chennai market is any more conservative as n advertising market, but you can say that Chennai consumers are slightly more conservative. However, the big difference is between the advertising markets or the industry per se. In Mumbai and Delhi, there are more advertisers and there are more new advertisers coming in as compared to Chennai or Kolkata. It’s a fix pie, so there are more market share battles going on rather than battling through organic growths.

Q. What are the major areas of focus for Grey India in 2010?

For Grey, it’s going to be two things. The first thing is that it’s going to be a year of growth. It’s also got to be where we lift our creative game above and Shalini (Dam, NCD, Grey India) has that mandate. We specifically would want to focus more on Delhi, where I think we haven’t done as well as we could have, given that market. So, I would focus a lot on Delhi.

However, on the target growth, we are working on our 2010 plans.

Q. Where does Grey India office stand in the global Grey Worldwide, both in terms of revenue and geographic expansion?

We are one of the top five agencies in the country. You may say that our creative products have slipped over the couple of years; maybe or maybe not. But in the Asia Pacific context, Grey India is the key driver in both its top line and bottom line numbers. And India is the jewel in the Asia Pacific crown.

Q. Has the recession affected the agency and in what way? What steps has Grey India taken to counter recession?

A lot of clients have reduced retainers. That was the first sign. To what I have heard, some clients have reduced overall spends, but that was not something that affected Grey. However, over the last month or two, there has been a lot of spending coming back in action. But when it came to countering the slowdown, like everybody else we did not give any raises this year, but I am happy to tell you that at the same time Grey did not lose talent during this time. So, we’ve had no layoffs because of the slowdown or recession.

Now, with the year 2009 coming to an end and a new year round the corner, I think in 2010, life will go back to normal. One will see revisions of salaries and hikes. We will see hiring coming back in a big way; in fact, the signs of it are already there.

Q. How much do global affiliations help in the progress of any Indian agency? Any disadvantages, especially in times of a global recession?

Yes, global affiliations do help. And taking global affiliations in count, an affiliation can’t have a downside; it can only have an upside. For us, it’s worked only on the upside. Downside is only (but that’s very rare) when some global alignment prevents you from pitching for a large domestic business. But all in all, I believe that international affiliations help.

Q. In a period of one year, Grey witnessed a lot of appointments with Shalini Dam becoming NCD, Bindu Sethi becoming the National Planning Head and then your announcement. How do you intend to retain your current talent at the agency? Is there some specific strategy for that?

Sure we do have a strategy. All employees at the agency have to believe that they come to Grey to grow. We have a very high emphasis on training. We also try to make the working environment a fun place. So, it’s all about adding value to an individual’s career.

Q. What are the things that the Indian ad industry needs to watch out for in the days to come?

I really think integration should come of age as I don’t see it at work very well at all. Integration is not about taking a picture and putting it in all media; it’s an idea translation. I also think that the digital communication really needs to be worked upon. We are way behind the West. However, there are companies that are beginning to do good work, and yes, India is genuinely ready for digitalisation. Of course, it is brand specifics; if your brand is rural in nature, one will not use digital, but there are enough brands and enough business amongst the Indian area to do work in digital.

Q. Please share with us the client portfolio that Grey India currently handles.

Some of the clients that we are working on currently include Ambuja, Parle, Suzlon, JSW, Bharti Axa and ITC, among others, for the Mumbai market. In Bangalore, we have Britannia, 3M and UB wines; in Delhi, we have GSK and John Keells Foods, among others. So, we have a pretty impressive roaster of clients. So yes, there is a lot of excitement happening in Grey and you will hear more when we are ready to announce. 2010 will be a year where Grey India will surprise a lot of people.

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